California aqueduct

The California aqueduct conveys water through much of Central California.

Drought's impacts on California's human condition

On Jan. 3, California water officials set out to survey the state’s snowpack. Word is they packed light and left the snowshoes at home, heading out instead with sunscreen and hats to protect themselves from the sun.

What they found could be measured with a simple foot-long ruler.

This is not good, folks. While comparisons to the drought of 1976-1977 that nearly claimed Shasta Lake and had other key reservoirs at record lows are noteworthy, we’re really in a much worse predicament than we were then as California’s population has increased by 16 million to more than 38 million today.

As water continues to evaporate from the landscape, so too does the human condition continue to decline in California. More farmland sits fallow, putting more farmworkers out of work and their former employers looking for other sources of reliable income.

What makes Shasta so significant is it is the keystone to California’s Central Valley Project (CVP), which was conceived and designed to protect California from massive floods and crippling drought. For years it did just that. Towns along the Sacramento River channel up and down the Sacramento Valley expanded their footprint and farms expanded in the fertile river-bottom soil as growers could be assured of ample flood protection and adequate supplies of irrigation water in most years.

As a result, cities expanded – the City of Sacramento would not exist like it does today were it not for dams like Shasta, Oroville and Folsom; agricultural production increased – California’s economy is strengthened by about $100 billion per year because of the crops produced in the Golden State; and California’s human condition has greatly improved.

Instead, the project conceived and designed to provide protection from annual flood events and crippling drought has become a hobbled example of over-regulation and political bickering. Meanwhile, California’s human condition appears to be in steady decline with no memory of why the CVP was built or the positive things it accomplished.

Meanwhile, regulatory burdens continue to cut water to farmers and urban users, leading to the level of groundwater pumping that a steady supply of surface water was instead supposed to provide.

The results are clear: aquifers are at dangerously low levels and saltwater is being drawn into Central Coast aquifers, which threatens to kill cropland in the nation’s salad bowl and taint the drinking water for millions of coastal residents.

A proposed fix called the Bay-Delta Accord is hoped to help alleviate California’s water woes. It’s a good start. Meanwhile, we must be pragmatic about what little water we do have, stop bickering about fish, and start repairing our water infrastructure and the mindset that got us here before the human condition deteriorates to an unrecoverable point.

Yes, the Delta ecosystem is a treasure worth preserving, and the BD Accord hopes to address that. The lack of reliable drinking water for urban residents and the expanded fallowing of farmland will have a much greater impact on California’s human condition as jobs are lost, economies shrivel and America’s status as an agriculturally self-sufficient nation is threatened.

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